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Elizabeth's More Serious Sister Mary Takes The Spotlight In 'The Other Bennet Sister'

Apr 9, 2020
Originally published on April 10, 2020 2:24 pm

You may recall that Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice follows Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters — and their efforts to marry well.

Spoiler alert: Elizabeth does marry — she lands the handsome and rich Mr. Darcy and then lives happily ever after.

But what about Mary, the bookworm, the serious one, the plainest of the sisters? Did you ever wonder what happened to her? Well, Janice Hadlow did. She has made Mary the star of her first novel, The Other Bennet Sister.


Interview Highlights

On what made her want to write about Mary

I've been reading Pride and Prejudice on and off since I was about 15, which is quite a long time now. And I think, like everybody else, when I've read it it's Elizabeth — it's Lizzy — who dazzles your eyes. You can't take your eyes off her. She's such an extraordinary heroine. Austen, herself, calls her light bright and sparkling. And that's absolutely right. We all love Lizzy and possibly quite a lot of us would like to be Lizzy. ...

I suppose it was only a couple of years ago when I began to notice at the edges this rather sad, rather dowdy, rather disliked and dislikable, apparently, character Mary. At first, she's there in a way, I think, to make everybody else look better. But when you really begin to notice her predicament it's pretty hard, I think, not to have some sympathy for her. ...

I didn't want to pretend that, actually, she was a beauty in disguise. There was never a moment in my book where [there's a revelation like] "But why, Miss Bennett, you're really rather beautiful." You know, she I think she's a perfectly ordinary looking woman in a family of beauties. And I think that's very tough.

I think that's the starting point for Mary, is understanding how she became who she is. But I think what I've tried to do after that is to put her on the journey that, actually, every Jane Austen heroine has to go on. And that is: Every Jane Austen heroine has to discover who she really is. She goes on a journey, if you like, of self-understanding. And it's only when she's understood who she genuinely is that she's actually ready to decide which is the right man for her, who is the right partner in life for her. So I've tried to put Mary on that same journey.

On going back to a more traditional time period

I think for me, one of the moments was realizing that when she goes to London — she goes to see her uncle and aunt, the Gardeners — and when she does that, that's the point where her transformation starts to happen. Because once she arrives in London, once you arrive in a town, you no longer have to be who you have been in the past year. What urban life offers you is the opportunity to remake yourself and turn yourself into somebody else. You're no longer confined by what everybody else has thought of you for the first 20 years of your life. And I think that's quite a modern sensation. I think that's something we can all identify with. I think finding happiness is a universal desire that transcends period and time. I think we all want that even 250 years after Austen was writing.

On how long she's been thinking about writing a novel

Forever. I mean, I don't think I would have had — when I was a lot younger and before I'd had a television career — I don't think I'd have had the courage to do it because it feels like a very big thing to say "Here's my imagination. Please enjoy it." That feels like a big ask. It took me a long time working with creative people, understanding, I think, how to order ideas, looking at how people managed a narrative, you know, I've been thinking about that probably for about 15 years.

And I learned a lot from working with people in drama or in other forms of television that actually showed you how to tell a story — because I think storytelling at the end is what brings people to books, wherever they're set, whatever the genre they're in. I think, at the end, learning how to keep people engaged is the most important thing. And I learned a lot of that by watching absolutely brilliant people do it. So it gave me a bit of experience, and also I think gave me the feeling [that] now is the time to do it — it's now or never, really — have a bit of braveness and give it a go.

Justine Kenin and Jolie Myers produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Here's a candidate for all that stay-at-home reading time on our hands these days, and it's one that may appeal to all the Jane Austen lovers out there. You may recall "Pride And Prejudice" followed Elizabeth Bennet and her four sisters and their efforts to marry well. Well, spoiler alert - Elizabeth does. She lands the handsome and rich Mr. Darcy and then lives happily ever after. But what about Mary, the bookworm, the serious one, the plainest of the sisters? Did you ever wonder what happened to her? Well, Janice Hadlow did. She has made Mary the star of her first novel, "The Other Bennet Sister." And Janice Hadlow joins me now from her home in Edinburgh.

Welcome.

JANICE HADLOW: Thank you. Lovely to speak to you.

KELLY: So Mary, we should just state, is not the most immediately compelling heroine. We are introduced to her on the very first page of your book as - and I'll quote - "Mary, the middle daughter, possessed neither beauty, wit, nor charm, but her sisters shone so brightly they seem to cancel out her failure and, indeed, eclipse her presence altogether." I mean, it's a devastating statement. So what attracted you to her, to wanting to form a book around her story?

HADLOW: Well, I've been reading "Pride And Prejudice" on and off since I was about 15, which is quite a long time now. And I think, like everybody else, when I've read it, it's Elizabeth, it's Lizzy who dazzles your eyes. You can't take your eyes off her. She's such an extraordinary heroine. Austen herself calls her light, bright and sparkling, and that's absolutely right. We all love Lizzy, and possibly quite a lot of us we'd like to be Lizzy.

KELLY: Yeah.

HADLOW: I suppose it was only a couple of years ago when I actually began to notice at the edges, this rather sad, rather dowdy, rather disliked and dislikable, apparently, character, Mary. At first, she's there in a way, I think, to make everybody else look better. But once you really begin to notice her predicament, it's pretty hard, I think, not to have some sympathy for her.

KELLY: Yeah, right. And the Mary - the inner life of Mary, as you imagine her, it turns out, is nothing remotely boring. She is witty. She is charming. But she does have to grow into that. And you track her as a child and a teenager but then into her adult life.

HADLOW: Well, I think - I didn't want to pretend that, actually, she was a beauty in disguise. There was never a moment in my book where, but why, Ms. Bennet, you're really rather beautiful? You know, she - I think she's a perfectly ordinary looking woman in a family of beauties. And I think that's very tough. And I think that's the starting point for Mary is understanding how she became who she is.

But I think what I've tried to do after that is to put her on the journey that actually every Jane Austen heroine has to go on. And that is every Jane Austen heroine has to discover who she really is. She goes on a journey, if you like, of self-understanding. And it's only when she's understood who she genuinely is that she's actually ready to decide which is the right man for her, who is the right partner in life for her. So I've tried to put Mary on that same journey.

KELLY: Did you worry that readers might be turned off by a book that, at its premise, is about whether beauty is the be-all and end-all of a woman? And it is a very old-fashioned setting in the English countryside.

HADLOW: I think, for me, one of the moments was realizing that when she goes to London, she goes to see her uncle and aunt, the Gardiners. And when she does that, that's the point where her transformation starts to happen because once she arrives in London, once you arrive in a town, you no longer have to be who you have been in the past. What urban life offers you is the opportunity to remake yourself and turn yourself into somebody else. You're no longer confined by what everybody else has thought of you for the first 20 years of your life.

And I think that's quite a modern sensation. I think that's something we can all identify with. I think finding happiness is a universal desire that transcends period and time. I think we all want that, even 250 years after Austen was writing.

KELLY: Now, I mentioned this is your first novel. You came to write this after a long career at the BBC. You ran BBC Two, BBC Four. Those are two of the big TV channels in Britain. How long have you had a novel percolating somewhere in the back of your mind?

HADLOW: Oh, forever.

(LAUGHTER)

HADLOW: Forever. I mean, I don't think I would have had - when I was a lot younger and before I'd had a television career, I don't think I'd have had the courage to do it because it feels like a very big thing to say, here's what I think. Here's my imagination. Please enjoy it. That feels like a big ask.

It took me a long time working with creative people, understanding, I think, how to order ideas, looking at how people managed a narrative, you know. I've been thinking about that probably for about 15 years. And I learned a lot from working with people in drama or in other forms of television that actually showed you how to tell a story. It gave me a bit of experience and also, I think, gave me feel - now is the time to do it. It's now or never, really. Have a bit of braveness and give it a go.

KELLY: Is that advice you would give to all of us stuck at home right now? I imagine there are a lot of people out there who have decided we have a novel in us.

HADLOW: I think the truth is, you know, the only way you ever find out if that's really true is to sit down and do it. It's very, very easy to keep saying, well, this isn't the right moment. But if there ever is a moment, I suspect this is it.

KELLY: That is Janice Hadlow talking about her debut novel, "The Other Bennet Sister."

Janice Hadlow, thanks so much. Great to talk to you.

HADLOW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.